Officiating in the NBA: Consistency is the key

In his autobiographical book titled “The Last Season,” legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson spent a fair amount of time talking about officiating. He wrote that when in comes to reffing in the NBA, the main quality he asks for is consistency. He noted the fact that his star center, Shaquille O’Neal, would get hacked endlessly in the paint, and rarely get the whistle blown – whereas fouls would get called a lot more frequently with other players. He was pointing out a double standard pertaining to his own player, but the truth is that we’ve seen things like this take place throughout much of NBA history.

Officiating in the NBA: Consistency is key

In defense of the refs

Now, to be fair – these things aren’t always easy to moderate. Being an NBA referee is a lot easier said than done, and for a multitude of reasons. In addition to knowing the rules of the game backwards and front, and being in good enough shape to run up and down the floor, they need to deal with the emotions of the players. Refs have come forward over the years and spoken about the constant verbal abuse they receive from disgruntled players who feel they’ve been wronged by a bad call. And that’s to say nothing about the coaches, the fans, and the media.

There’s a lot of pressure on these refs to make the right call, because they know if they don’t, they’re the ones who are going to get blamed on a team’s loss. So many sports games in history have been blamed on the refs, and quite often they’re used as scapegoats. Tensions are amplified even higher when it comes to the playoffs. If there’s ever a time for refs to be on their game, it’s the playoffs – and unfortunately they’ve been hounded persistently as a result of many alleged poor postseason calls.

Plenty of gray area

People may not realize this, but there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to officiating. Some refs are a bit more lenient than others. Some are more keen to let players play things out, allowing a more physical game to present itself. Some refs are extra strict, and will make calls on every tiny little thing.

Officiating in the NBA: Consistency is key

Modern day officiating

In the modern era, refs have been instructed to call a lot more fouls. This is because the league wants the game to be less physical, leading to much higher-scoring games. This is perfectly in sync with the three-point boom era, where players are now given a lot more room to sink that jumper they love so much.


At the end of the day, whatever the refs decide to do – it’s all about consistency. Coaches and players can work with whatever standards the league sets before them. What they cannot deal with is one thing being declared, and getting the rug pulled out underneath them in a pivotal playoff game.

This goes back to the conversation about gray area. Refs are human, and sometimes they may feel pressured in a given moment to officiate a certain way that’s against their nature. Maybe it’s the emotions of the players, maybe it’s the fans, or maybe it’s just the heat of the moment.

Officiating in the NBA: Consistency is key

But if there’s something the refs should strive toward, it’s to find a niche style that players and coaches can work with. If a ref establishes his own style, and sticks to it – the players have nothing to complain about. If he makes calls one way, and changes his tune the very next game – we can understand why players may get upset.